Sam: Bulls sinking to middle class of NBA


Sam: Bulls sinking to middle class of NBA

Not to beat a dead horse here, but the four-team blockbuster trade centering around Dwight Howard only further illustrates the gap between the NBA's haves and have-nots.
Unfortunately, the Bulls appear to be sinking into the latter category.
That may sound preposterous to some, as the Bulls are in one of the NBA's biggest markets, have one of the league's highest payrolls, won the most regular-season games for two consecutive seasons and are doling out four eight-figure salaries -- including a true superstar in Derrick Rose -- but in this summer of the rich getting richer, the franchise is falling behind in basketball's arms race. And while Rose is still only 23, going on 24 and this fall will begin the first season of his five-year contract extension, despite the fact that he's currently on the shelf, it doesn't appear that at this point, the obsessive winner will have a legitimate shot at hoisting a championship trophy during at least the early prime of his career.
This isn't a knee-jerk reaction to the organization not acquiring Howard, an idea that's been dead for some time now. The game's top center simply didn't want to be in Chicago on a long-term basis and, unlike the Lakers, the Bulls weren't willing to roll the dice on the notoriously indecisive big man not signing a contract extension, even before Rose suffered his devastating ACL injury.
Perhaps more significantly, the Magic clearly were looking for a trade package different from any permutation of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Taj Gibson and future assets, just as they somehow didn't want the Rockets' proposed deal of draft choices and young talent or even the Nets' offer of Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries, MarShon Brooks and four first-round picks -- while ridding themselves of Hedo Turkoglu's infamously bad contract -- scenarios that in retrospect, seem preferable to what Orlando reportedly will receive.
Regardless, now that Howard is headed to Hollywood to join a star-studded cast featuring fellow All-Stars Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and free-agent acquisition Steve Nash, the Lakers have seemingly one-upped the defending-champion Heat, at least on paper, by putting together a "Big Four" in the wake of Miami's "Big Three" delivering on its promise and winning a title in June. Games still have to be played and it's no guarantee that with Howard, the Lakers will leapfrog the West's reigning top dog in Oklahoma City, but even though it's the other conference, one can't help but notice how the Bulls are increasingly less relevant in the conversation about the league's upper crust.
Even in the East, the efforts of the Heat to maintain its standing, the Celtics' attempts to upgrade their aging roster for another run to the Finals and splashy summer moves of the Knicks, Nets and now Sixers -- not to mention the Central Division rival Pacers' resolve to continue building on their recent success, if not jump into the fray of contenders -- has only exacerbated the impact of the Bulls' cost-cutting offseason maneuvers.
Whether or not you believe the decimation of the "Bench Mob" has been overblown, or will hurt even worse most would have you believe, even if Rose's eventual late-season return provides a boost, the Bulls no longer possess the same advantages in depth, size, chemistry and defense (based on losing the likes of backup center Omer Asik and reserve swingman Ronnie Brewer, though Tom Thibodeau's infamous preparation will have something to say about that) that made them such a special group over the past two seasons.
That isn't the point, one might say, as Chicago is a city used to championships, and with Rose still recuperating, a celebratory parade down Michigan Avenue wasn't in the making next summer anyway, so why not exercise some fiscal responsibility in hopes of winning big in the future?
Except it's being proven that to the aggressors go the spoils, both in free agency and in the trade market, so sitting back until 2014 to catch a big fish or two is no guarantee, especially with cap-space competitors like the Magic assuredly going to throw their hats in the ring. And even that is a very uncertain proposition, as superstars in their prime like LeBron James won't necessarily opt out of their contracts, leaving only aging stars like Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki to pursue, a scenario that already foreshadows the disappointments of 2000 and more recently, 2010.
Sure, some intriguing trade possibilities will be on the horizon and the Bulls definitely have assets and flexibility: Trading Rip Hamilton's expiring deal this season, Luol Deng's contract coming to an end after the 2013-14 season and amnestying Carlos Boozer to more-remote considerations, like the rights for 2011 draft choice Nikola Mirotic, the trade exception acquired from Atlanta in the Kyle Korver trade and the increasingly-valuable future pick from Charlotte.
But in the meantime, the reality of the situation is that big-market Chicago has firmly slipped into the NBA's middle class. In a way, that isn't the worst thing in the world, as the Bulls clearly studied the league's punitive new CBA and resisted joining their free-spending peers while still fielding a team that should be competitive enough to make the playoffs.
But after being a true contender for two seasons, is that enough, both for fans and the team's "nucleus," as the franchise's brass so often refers to it, of Rose, Taj Gibson and Joakim Noah, to remain content? (Luol Deng and Carlos Boozer, while integral to the team's success now, have had their names bandied about in speculation so much that, as the old adage goes, "Where there's smoke, there's fire") Only time will tell if the front office's cautiousness will pay off, but in the meantime, the realization that the Bulls don't have the firepower or the desire, in the present, to keep up with the Joneses, has become even clearer.

Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury


Jimmy Butler leaves game unable to put any pressure on right leg after apparent non-contact injury

The NBA may have lost another top superstar due to injury.

On Friday, Jimmy Butler appeared to have suffered a non-contact injury to his right knee. He left the game against the Houston Rockets unable to put any pressure on his right leg and needed assistance getting back to the locker room. 

Here's a video of the incident:

Coach Tom Thibodeau said that Butler will have an MRI when the team returns to Minnesota on Saturday.

Butler drew a lot of headlines last weekend after not playing in the NBA All-Star Game in Los Angeles.

Entering Friday, Butler led the league with 37.3 minutes played per game.

The Bulls also take on the Timberwolves in Minnesota on Saturday night.

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

It's Bobby's World in Bulls' lottery-improving loss to 76ers

The final 25 games was supposed to be all about the development of the Bulls’ recent acquisitions and securing a record worthy of one of the last three envelopes at the NBA Draft Lottery.

Only Zach LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn seemed to matter, with Cameron Payne and Cristiano Felicio being the perfect window dressing for development as opposed to just saying a team is tanking.

But Bobby Portis is making a case that he isn’t to be forgotten in the big picture, that his worth is more than just being a punchline to the jokes that followed his incident with Nikola Mirotic.

The only thing Portis didn’t do right in the Bulls’ 116-115 loss to the Philadelphia 76ers was missing a point blank shot that would’ve given the Bulls an improbable and unwanted win, and it would’ve given him 40 points.

Instead he had to settle for a career-high 38 as Joel Embiid was bearing down on Portis when he caught a diagonal pass from Dunn with 1.1 seconds left, having the shorter T.J. McConnell on him and taking a power dribble to gather himself.

“If I could go back I would’ve just went up the first time off the glass like I always do,” Portis said. “We just have to try to close out games better.”

Embiid showed he’s worth all the trouble with his health problems, scoring 30 with 13 rebounds and five rebounds while Ben Simmons put up 32 with 11 assists and seven rebounds as the 76ers improved to 31-25, good enough for seventh place in the East.

In a game that featured remarkable resolve from a purposely undermanned Bulls team as they sat Robin Lopez and Justin Holiday, they put themselves in position to win after trailing by 18 early. After leading by five courtesy of a LaVine walk-down triple with 1:02 left, they made a couple critical errors that allowed the 76ers to steal a game the Bulls won’t mind them taking at the end of 82.

Denzel Valentine’s inbounds pass with 5.9 seconds left was intended for LaVine, but Embiid stepped in front for a steal as they were in position to make it a free-throw game the rest of the way.

Similar to the Bulls’ unlikely win over the Orlando Magic before the All-Star break, they returned the favor as 76ers rookie Ben Simmons made free throws after the steal to give the visitors a one-point lead, setting the stage for the final play.

If learning lessons is what the last 100 quarters of basketball is supposed to be about, the Bulls got a big-time lesson in a game that ultimately means nothing.

“These are learning opportunities for our team,” Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. “I couldn’t be happier, the way we went out and competed. We dug ourselves an 18-point hold and (fought) our way back—have complete control of the game.”

Control was wrestled from the 76ers by Portis’ able and quick hands. Taking more of a scoring posture since Mirotic’s departure, Portis has never been shy about being aggressive.

But now he’s being encouraged in that department, playing a big part in the Bulls’ tying their franchise record of 18 triples with six of his own, scoring 21 in the first half and not backing down one step from the massive Embiid.

“I kind of struggled from (three) in the last six, seven games,” said Portis, who didn’t take much time off during the All-Star break. “I think I’ve shown this entire year, trying to stay consistent and be a spark off the bench.”

Counting the last two games before the break, Portis has been on the best scoring binge of his career—cementing his place in the league when just a few months ago, many were questioning if the Bulls should’ve actually picked up his player option following the Mirotic incident.

His 25.0 points in the last three, along with scoring in double figures for seven straight games are career-bests. With every flex, every energetic plea to the crowd and resourceful score underneath the rim, Portis is becoming a player the Bulls can’t afford to plan without.

The stage was set for a Portis breakout shortly after the incident, when he was serving his suspension to start the season. When the Bulls traveled to Miami and Orlando, he flew on his own to Orlando for dinner with his mentor, former NBA veteran and Magic assistant coach Corliss Williamson.

Williamson, a player who was not to be trifled with during his career, told Portis essentially, “this too shall pass”.

“Just play your game,” Williamson told NBCSportsChicago.com recently. “Don’t put any pressure on yourself about what’s gonna happen after this year. What’s got him here is hard work, how hard he plays in the game. He continues to do that, he’ll be successful.”

Portis recalled the dinner where he was finally able to confide and unleash after weeks of frustration. Calling Williamson a father figure dating back to their Arkansas roots, where Portis played on Williamson’s AAU teams in middle school, Portis put his trust in him and came back reinvigorated.

“We talked for hours about the whole situation,” Portis told NBCSportsChicago.com “He told me when I come back to come 10 times harder. When people play this game and play the right way, they forget about the other stuff. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Scoring 38 tends to remake a narrative.

“Bobby just continues to improve,” Hoiberg said. “He’s a confident kid that goes out and plays with a ton of swagger and toughness. You need that, to go out and play with that type of effort. He’s tenacious on the glass. He’s getting the crowd into the game.”

When speaking of Portis, Hoiberg’s face went from flush to beaming, knowing how far Portis has come in his three years—being a player who wouldn’t take 3-pointers with confidence to now unleashing them whenever a defender’s feet shows the slightest hint of leaning back.

No hesitation.

“Regardless if I’m making shots, I try to leave it all out on the floor,” Portis said. “It felt good making shots, being able to help the team. I wanted the win tonight.”

Portis helped make up for the Bulls not getting their usual production from Dunn, who struggled guarding the bigger Simmons and Lauri Markkanen, who missed all five of his 3-pointers and made just one field goal in 32 minutes.

“You can put he and Lauri together,” Hoiberg said. “It gives you two guys that can stretch the floor and space it, two guys that can rebound, two that can put it on the floor. It’s exciting to think about when Kris gets his rhythm back.”

And now, Williamson’s words have proven to be prophetic for his pupil, because if the Bulls aren’t seeing Portis as a key part of their future, there’s about 25 other teams who’ll be lining up for his services this summer.

“I told him don’t even worry about it,” Williamson said. “Let your game speak for itself. People who really know you, know what type of person you are. You start producing people will forget about it and love you for what you do on the court.”

His game is talking, even if the Bulls’ loss was one they’d rather have taken in silence.